Defining the culture of a particular workplace can be straightforward especially if your
powers of observation are strong and your capacity to ‘tune in’ to your surroundings well-honed
Generalise about what you can see, how people behave, what you hear and the way people speak to each other and you have gone a long way toward describing the workplace culture in that specific setting. It is often said that the culture of a workplace is ‘the way we do things around here’ however, a description of a workplace’s culture is just the beginning for leaders and managers who want to want to influence changes to the ways people think and work.
Successful organisational change requires an in-depth understanding of the workplace culture. To understand workplace culture, managers and leaders must look beyond the surface of culture to what lies beneath.
Workplace culture – above and beneath the surface
Workplace culture is like an iceberg (see Figure 1) – part of it is visible but by far the larger proportion lies ‘hidden’ beneath what is observable, influencing and driving theobservable part.
On the surface, culture is about factors such as office layout, how people behave, style of dress, the language and interpersonal styles people use and a myriad otherobservable features. To a degree, these observable aspects of culture are a product of the explicit, written rules of the organisation which are embedded in policies andprocedures such as codes of conduct, safety standards and performance appraisal systems. However these formal directives and guidelines go only part of the way to explaining the observable aspects of workplace culture.
Observable aspects of culture are also influenced by the values and beliefs people hold about why and how things are done and the assumptions that drive their choices about what to think and do. For example, in one workplace the manager claims to have an ‘open door’ policy and has said that she welcomes staff initiating conversations with her about “any issue” they wish to raise with her. Staff experience however has been that the manager is rarely in the office with the so-called ‘open door’ during normal working hours. In practice, the only way to take up her offer is to book a meeting time with her or stay back after work. This has led to a generally held belief that the manager is too busy to spend time with staff apart from in formal meetings.
In healthy workplaces people’s values beliefs and assumptions can be brought to the surface and discussed enabling people to better understand why colleagues behave the way they do and providing a foundation for individuals to make adjustments to their approach for the benefit of the workplace as a whole.
This can be a powerful approach to dealing with a situation where workplace behaviours are inconsistent with the organisation’s values.
Ideally the values which influence workplace conduct (the ‘values-in-action’) should be
aligned with the organisation’s publicly stated values (the ‘espoused’ values). However this is often not the case.
A local government authority promoted its corporate values in the public domain including its internet site. One of these values ‘respect’ was seen to have broad application intended to mean that all staff would show respect for everyone they dealt with including each other. Community feedback consistently evidenced that this value was reflected in community members’ experiences of dealing with council staff.
However inside the organisation there was a different story. Formal bullying complaints were on the rise the latest staff survey indicated significantly diminished morale and a lack of respect between staff and management and between various departments who reported to different general managers. Over time and as a result of an in-depth review of the organisation’s culture it became clear that respect internally was being undermined by an overly controlling management style in some quarters coupled with the impact of a major interpersonal conflict at the most senior level. Whilst staff passion (another of the values of this organisation) for their work in providing community services sustained them in dealings with customers respect was an espoused value only. It was often not reflected in interpersonal relations between staff.
Adjustments to management responsibilities and team dynamics at the most senior level were needed to address the underlying problems to the point where respectful interaction prevailed internally as well as in external relations.
Ultimately culture comes from within people. Mandating behavioural change without understanding the underlying values beliefs and assumptions which influenceworkplace culture is a high-risk approach to cultural change because at best the effect is usually short-lived.In order to effect sustainable change leaders and managers need to seek an understanding of the factors which influence the shared values beliefs and assumptionswhich develop over time in workplaces. The influencing factors include management and leadership styles organisation structure control systems communicationprocesses and ‘organisational folklore’ – the myths and stories which develop in workplaces and often take on ‘a life of their own’.Whilst the introduction of a new policy or a workshop on the behaviours that are expected might seem an attractive expedient approach to managing change ‘surface’approaches are not enough. They should be accompanied by in-depth exploration of what lies ‘beneath the surface’. Organisational sustainability depends on it.
Workplace culture checklist
How well do you understand the culture of your workplace? You might be able to describe it pretty accurately but how in depth is your understanding of the contributing factors?
By working through the checklist below you can begin to assess the extent to which you truly understand the culture of your workplace. Identifying any shortfalls in your understanding and taking action to rectify this will enable you to deepen your understanding. Managers who truly take time to understand the culture of the workplace for which they are accountable are in a much stronger position to influence change.
1. What have you observed about the ‘above the surface’ aspects of culture in your workplace?
To answer this question you could think about:
Your relationship with team members;
Interactions between your team and other teams/departments;
Your team’s performance track record; and
People’s approach to conflict resolution.
2. How clear are you about the organisation’s espoused values and how these are expected to reflect in staff behaviour?
3. What are the values beliefs and assumptions which actually drive your team’s behaviour?
4. How well are they aligned with the corporate (or organisation-wide) values?Looking for more ideas?For readers with an interest in extending their understanding about the topics covered in this article the following articles are also available on the website:
About the Author
Janet Fitzell is an independent organisational consultant and facilitator specialising in organisational development and change through FourLeaf Consulting(www.fourleaf.com.au). She facilitates team planning and development undertakes organisational reviews using a collaborative action learning approach coaches individuals and teams and generally helps organisations to build sustainable futures.
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